Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath have not spoken formally in eight weeks, even though the NDP Leader is publicly asking for more budget concessions and the Liberals must secure her support to keep the government alive.
The two leaders have not met or spoken over the phone since March 14, as a deadline approaches for a first vote on the budget. With the Progressive Conservatives vowing to vote against it, the NDP is the Liberals’ only hope for avoiding a spring election.
And the New Democrats are pressing their advantage. The party already saw many of its spending demands met in last week’s fiscal plan and on Wednesday, it made what may be the first of several new requests.
Ms. Horwath called for the creation of an independent financial accountability office, a budget watchdog modelled on the federal parliamentary budget officer. The office, which the NDP estimates would cost $2.5-million annually to run, would have the power to investigate government spending.
“We need to ensure there are no more Ornge, eHealth or gas-plant scandals in this province. Something needs to bring an end to the Liberals’ free ride,” Ms. Horwath said, referring to three instances in which the Liberal government spent large amounts of money for little tangible gain. “People need to know that their money isn’t going to be spent willy-nilly any more.”
Ms. Wynne described Ms. Horwath’s idea as “interesting,” but sounded frustrated that the NDP did not include it in the party’s original list of budget requests last February.
“It’s a problem if there is a new demand every day,” Ms. Wynne told reporters in Waterloo, Ont., after meeting with a group of students. “We have to look at the whole picture. It’s not going to be helpful to do this in bits and pieces.”
The Liberals want to negotiate privately with the NDP to get a deal done. Ms. Wynne’s office says the Premier has offered repeatedly to sit down with Ms. Horwath but has been turned down.
New Democrats, meanwhile, say little headway was made at the March 14 meeting, and Ms. Horwath wants any future tête-à-tête to have a formal agenda.
The party is intent on bargaining in public to avoid a repeat of last year’s messy budget battle. In that case, Ms. Horwath’s staff reached a closed-door deal with then-premier Dalton McGuinty’s office and the parties’ house leaders, but the two sides came away with different understandings of their arrangement. While the Liberals said the NDP had agreed to support the budget with just a few modifications, New Democrats said they had reserved the right to make further changes at committee.
Ms. Horwath said Wednesday she will meet with Ms. Wynne, but not until after she has finished telephone and online consultations on the budget and possibly laid out more demands. This process could take until the end of next week, leaving the government just two weeks to satisfy her requests before the first confidence vote must happen.
This public process has so far proven beneficial for the NDP. The party has successfully pushed the government to adopt several requests, including a 15-per-cent cut to auto-insurance premiums and additional funding for home care, and has seized the spotlight at Queen’s Park.
And the Liberals are in a poor position to negotiate. Ms. Wynne successfully campaigned for the Premier’s office this year on a promise to do everything possible to avoid an election, and the party is not eager to make a trip to the polls, where it could very well lose.